The northeastern part of America is home to some of the top acts in modern progressive music, and this past Wednesday, three of the very best—The Tea Club, Bent Knee, and Thank You Scientist—played together at one of Philadelphia’s chief venues, Underground Arts. All three groups had superb new albums to promote (so each set was wonderful in its own right), and while their styles are only somewhat comparable, their cumulative efforts and shared sense of dedication, personability, and appreciation for each other and the crowd made for a very eclectic yet consistent and rewarding concert.
First up was New Jersey’s The Tea Club, a quintet whose latest collection, If/When, does a superb job of channeling both classic folk rock (CSNY, Cat Stevens) and classic prog rock (Genesis, Yes) while also feeling satisfyingly original. In particular, their rendition of the festively intricate yet uproarious and engaging “Say Yes” was done with near perfection, instantly demonstrating how exceptionally balanced their eminent songwriting and trained techniques are. After some amiable banter, frontmen Patrick and Dan McGowan made ironic dedications of the nearly thirty-minute epic “Creature” to their wives. As wildly ambitious, multifaceted, and ceaselessly alluring as it is lengthy, the track obviously harkened back to similarly expansive genre staples of the 1970s. Still—and despite a slightly compressed sound at times—they pulled it off expertly, delighting everyone with one of the best progressive rock suites in recent memory. Undoubtedly, they earned many new fans in the process.
Shortly thereafter, Boston, MA art rock troupe Bent Knee took the stage to deliver plenty of avant-garde—yet quite accessible—material from their newest statement, You Know What They Mean. Always happy to poke a bit of fun at themselves and bring levity to the room, their set began with guitarist Ben Levin preemptively accepting a poor response to a joke about Woody Allen becoming X-Men’s Wolverine. It’s that kind of egoless and endearing self-deprecation that makes Bent Knee seem especially humble and approachable, which is saying a lot considering how extraordinary they are as players and composers.
For instance, the off-kilter riffs and rhythms—combined with vocalist/keyboardist Courtney Swain’s lovably enthusiastic presence—of “Bone Rage” made it an instantly hypnotic and entertaining way to start. From there, “Give Us the Gold” brought a brighter and more melodic air (plus some amusing dancing on stage), whereas “Hold Me In” was reserved and bittersweet at times, making the explosive moments even more impactful. They played some other tunes from the new LP, of course, and beyond that, they also pulled out the joyous “Hands Up” from Say So and the title track from Land Animal. They amazed from start to finish.
Likewise, headliner Thank You Scientist played some one of the most infectiously intricate ninety-minute sets you could ever see. They pulled out several highlights from Terraformer, starting with opener “Wrinkle,” an exhaustively complex but mesmeric and playful instrumental who wild change-ups and textural variety (including horns and strings) instantly evoked the best of Frank Zappa. Likewise, its follow-up, “FXMLDR,” allowed lead singer Salvatore Marrano to shine on one of the group’s catchiest songs. Other tracks from Terraformer, such as “Life of Vermin,” “Anchor,” the title track, and “Chromology,” also appeared and were just as entertainingly jaw-dropping. Naturally, past gems like “Feed the Horses,” “Mr. Invisible,” and “Blue Automatic” thrilled the crowd, too, and all of them were performed perfectly, with an abundance of astounding solos from pretty much every musician before the night ended. As an encore, they pulled out their latest single: a sophisticated and inventive cover of Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time” that eventually saw members of The Tea Club and Bent Knee twirling around the stage.
It’s also worth mentioning that in addition to the requisite multicolored lights that complemented the whole show, Thank You Scientist revealed a lot of charmingly weird imagery to enhance the sense of trippy bizarreness. These clips included various people—such as a smiling Arnold Schwarzenegger—merging into each other; scenes from two beloved experimental films, House and Society; misc. shots of people looking panicked by a highway; and kaleidoscope shots of people hanging upside down. Considering how off-the-wall their music is, these images were perfect complements and displayed how they, like Bent Knee and The Tea Club, are down-to-earth and tongue-in-cheek despite also being masters of their discerning crafts.
Because of how singular and specific each artist is, it’d be unfair to definitively say who had the best set; rather, all three of them showcased what makes them the best at what they do. What’s truly remarkable, then, is how well the trio accompanied each other in the midst of showing true admiration for each other (since they’ve been stuck on the road together for five weeks or so). In contrast to the commonality of somewhat incongruence acts making a concert feel disjointed, The Tea Club, Bent Knee, and Thank You Scientist represent three different avenues of what modern progressive rock is. Thus, they created a communal celebration of boundless music that performers and attendees alike could bond over. Let’s hope this isn’t the last time we get all three of them on the same stage.